“We were in the bad kid clique…I remember my parents coming downstairs at one point saying you kids need to shut the hell up and go to sleep. The next morning all the change I’d saved, for like a year probably, was gone. It was stolen. My friends stole my money.”
That's 28-year-old Ross Ulbricht telling a story about a middle-school sleepover as part of a StoryCorps interview in December 2012. In the video, Ulbricht wears a madras shirt under a hoodie. He’s bearded, has strong teeth and hooded eyes. He looks like that friend in your circle who would give you a lift to Whole Foods. There’s little indication in the video that Ulbricht was operating the Silk Road at the time, the internet’s largest illicit marketplace where users could buy illegal narcotics, hacking software, and fake IDs.
Ulbricht, now 29, was indicted Oct. 3 on three federal counts. He’s charged with narcotics trafficking, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering. Ulbricht, who allegedly went by the handle Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) and raked in $80 million in commissions from an estimated $1.2 billion in sales since the site went live in January 2011, denies the charges. DPR, arguably the most high-profile drug kingpin busted in recent memory, isn’t Scarface or Walter White; he’s more Jeff Bezos with a libertarian streak.
As part of the takedown, the FBI seized $4 million in Bitcoin, the online-only crypto-currency; a complete copy of the site’s server from July 23, 2013; and, if you believe the flurry of posts on Reddit, all of DPR’s private Silk Road communications. It’s that last bit that has me a little freaked out. This past winter, I received an email from DPR, a simple response to a customer service request: “Your Bitcoin has been deposited—DPR.”
In February of 2013, I decided to order one gram of MDMA from Silk Road because I wanted to write an essay on whether it really was that easy to click a few buttons and have a package of Schedule I substances arrive at your door a week later. There was also probably a small part of me that wanted to see if MDMA was as fun as I remembered it from college. I’ll occasionally take a pull from a communal joint at a party, but it had been well over a decade since I purchased anything stronger than Nyquil. Little did I know that ordering from the Silk Road came with its own set of trials that would make hanging out with a shifty drug dealer for half an hour seem desirable.
I logged onto the site and went to the orders page with the intent to click the cancel button. The button was gone. The page read, “In transit.”
I placed my order on a Friday afternoon after teaching a composition class and a creative writing workshop. By Sunday, I’d decided to cancel it. I was a 32-year-old graduate student, well past my drug-buying prime. Within 48 hours I’d been able to imagine all the awful consequences if I got busted. I could see the local news already, could see myself being led away from the English department building in handcuffs.
I logged onto the site and went to the orders page with the intent to click the cancel button. But the button was gone. The page read, “In transit.” The only thing left to do was finalize my order.
Silk Road has been closed ever since DPR was arrested. When it was active, when you made a purchase, your funds were placed into an intermediary escrow account and only reached the seller after you clicked “Finalize” upon receiving their package. This process was established as a way to protect buyers from sellers posting fraudulent listings. Which meant waiting became my only option.
That Monday I spent hours on the Silk Road message boards. The forums were filled with the low-level, sometimes high-level, paranoia that is part and parcel of drug dealing. Back when I was buying drugs—usually bad pot—as a college student in central Pennsylvania in the early 2000s, this paranoia manifested itself in language and code: Don’t say anything on the phone; use this code when you page me; you can ask me if I’m holding; don’t tell anyone where you got this; be vague.
On Silk Road the paranoia focused on customs seizures and controlled deliveries. I’d avoided the customs issue by purchasing from a seller in the U.S., but I’d also used my real name and address. I should have used a fake name, but the post office might not have delivered the package. And if the name had seemed too fake—a friend suggested using Hidalgo Portapotty—the dealer wouldn’t have sent the package. At the time, using my real name and address seemed like the only rational thing to do. Only now I was convinced the authorities were gearing up to execute a controlled delivery on my MDMA. Controlled delivery is a process where law enforcement dress a cop up like a mailman and force a buyer to sign for a package, thus implicating him in purchasing the drugs.
Of course, I shouldn’t have been doing any of this at all.
Linking a username to a true identity is what ultimately brought down DPR. In January of 2011, under the handle “Altoid,” he posted a link to Silk Road on the message boards at shroomery.org, a forum for stoners to talk about mushrooms and various intoxicants. He also posted as Altoid on the Bitcointalk.org forums in Oct. of 2011, looking for an IT expert in the Bitcoin field. The username on the Bitcoin forum linked to the email account firstname.lastname@example.org. The agent from the federal complaint, identified as Agent-1, found these posts and linked Altoid to Ulbricht.
On day two, I checked the comments and ratings for my seller. They were stellar. His ship times were listed at one to two days. I expected the package that afternoon. It didn’t come. I went back to the forums. I read about someone conducting tests with a retired drug-sniffing dog—the dog loved a small package of vacuum-sealed MDMA. He found it before he found the pot, the cocaine. I started to take precautions. I turned on Filevault, Apple’s hard drive encryption software. I download encryption software called Trucrypt. I placed early drafts of this essay in a hidden, encrypted directory. I put a passcode on my iPhone. I didn’t sleep.
I was blocks away from home, looking up the gentle rise where my house sits, when I saw a police car parked 10 feet from my door, 10 feet from my mailbox.
The next morning I dropped off my girlfriend at her house and bought a pack of cigarettes. I was blocks away from home, looking up the gentle rise where my house sits, when I saw a police car parked 10 feet from my door, 10 feet from my mailbox. I flicked my turn signal, turned, didn’t exactly start to hyperventilate, more like thought, That’s what I should be doing. I drove back to my girlfriend’s house. I was sure I was minutes away from losing everything. Embarrassing my family. Jail. Getting kicked out of grad school. Never seeing my students again. Months, years, caught in our draconian legal system. Mountains of legal fees. Never again seeing my girlfriend. How could I have been so stupid? A pragmatic Midwesterner, she asked for my keys and an ATM card in case she needed to bail me out later. This is when I finally did lose it, actually hyperventilated. She said she would drive by the house to see if the cop was still there.
The cop was gone. We took the dog for a walk. I apologized—a lot. I told my girlfriend I was sorry for putting her through all of this. I told her I was an idiot for doing something so stupid.
I was sure this would be the last time we’d take the dog for a walk.
Thursday afternoon we went to a coffee shop so my girlfriend could work. I spent an hour deleting files and getting my MacBook ready for a complete wipe. I changed my Gchat settings so it wouldn’t record chats anymore. Then I asked my girlfriend to get on Gchat. Her name popped up green. By that point, I was certain the cops were hours away from breaking down the door to my house. They would find my roommate Matt’s pipe; I would drag him down with me. I typed to my girlfriend in Gchat: “Can you text Matt? Tell him to get rid of his pipe. I don’t want him to get busted because of me. Tell him I’m being paranoid.”
“I don’t know what to say? Drug things?” She said this out loud.
I looked at a dowdy 50-something lady two tables away.
“Stop talking!” I wrote.
The lady looked at her phone—she was probably looking up a number for the police station. I went outside to smoke a cigarette. There was a police officer walking through the parking lot across the street. He was looking at cars. He was probably looking for mine. I went back inside. I watched the cop walk by the window. My girlfriend noticed, too. She, mercifully, said nothing.
Based on his Silk Road message-board posts and a Forbes interview, DPR saw Silk Road as a political crusade, the ultimate practice of Libertarian ideals: responsible adults deciding for themselves what was right for them. All well and good until you read the sections of the federal complaint detailing the hit Ulbricht allegedly put out on a user called FriendlyChemist in March 2013. FriendlyChemist allegedly tried to blackmail Ulbricht for $500,000, saying he would release the real names and addresses of Silk Road’s customers and vendors. Ulbricht then sent about $150,000 in Bitcoin to a user called redandwhite, saying that FriendlyChemist was “causing me problems” and he’d like to “put a bounty on his head if it’s not too much trouble for you.”
The MDMA was vacuum-sealed in a dime bag with blue stars on it, folded up in a sheet of white paper with 10 quotes printed on it in Helvetica. The quotes revolved around the theme of happiness.
My girlfriend and I left the coffee shop and drove to my house. My hands were clammy on the wheel. They’d been clammy all week. I drove the long way home so I could look down the street from a busier street, so I could check for cops. The street was empty.
“The mail’s here,” she said.
A brown bubble mailer was sticking out of my mailbox. I didn’t want to touch it.
A Comcast van was parked across the street. I pictured the van full of cops. We got out of the car and I made a big show of casually taking my mail from the box. The package was addressed from a clearly made-up business in a city not far away. It was postmarked two days earlier. One- to two-day shipping.
I took the package out of the box and inspected it. Flipped it over and over. Read the label again. I furrowed my brow, tried to look confused. I did all of this outside, standing in front of the mailbox.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“I think so. I don’t know what to do with it.”
We went inside. I wrote “Return to sender” on the package and put it in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know. This is what they say to do on the forums.”
I left the package on the table. I logged onto Silk Road for the last time and finalized my order. I worked for a few hours, the first time in days. I stopped checking the forums. I stopped looking for cops. I opened the package a few days later. The MDMA was vacuum-sealed in a dime bag with blue stars on it, folded up in a sheet of white paper with 10 quotes printed on it in Helvetica. The quotes, ranging from Ben Franklin to the Dalai Lama, revolved around the theme of happiness. One of them was attributed to Orson Welles: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop the story.”
Silk Road is gone, the site’s homepage replaced with an FBI seizure message. Other sites, like Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded, are stepping into the void. I’ve cashed in my Bitcoin, deleted Tor, removed the encryption from my hard drive. While DPR awaits arraignment, I try to convince myself that I’m just one of many small fish who received an email from DPR—to a username that may or may not be linked to my real name somewhere and exposed someday.